I’ve been specifically requested to transcribe the process I apply when learning a new character in KOF. As it so happens, I’ve recently picked up the Muay Thai inebriate, Hwa Jai, and for the sake of consistency I shall primarily base this article by using Hwa Jai in my examples. Note that my goal here isn’t necessarily character analysis, but rather to convey my method for learning once committing time to further explore a character.
It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact starting place for learning a character, though I’ll begin by assessing a character’s grounded normals since they’re the basis of a character’s defensive and offensive capabilities. There’s a lot to take in, but I usually look for moves with rapid startup or recovery and attacks that cover an excellent zone, while lastly taking note of special attack properties such as cancelability.
Most light attacks are somewhat standardized in terms of speed and so their usefulness relies more on range and special capabilities, though the heavy attacks in the game vary more greatly. Take Hwa Jai’s Standing Heavy Kick: its startup is moderately fast, but the recovery period is so concise that it’s difficult for the attack to be punished on whiff, allowing Hwa Jai to make liberal usage of this attack. The second point I mentioned refers to judging all of the angles that a character can control via their hitbox; I listed these primary regions on the SRK Hyper Guide and I’ll assume you’re familiar with them. Any attack that can fill up and control one of these areas is usually great, except in a few instances where slow startup imposes an issue, which is why I mentioned attack speed first. Not only is Hwa Jai’s aforementioned Standing Heavy Kick quick, but if you take a look at it you’ll see that it dominates the low hop space. Combined with its long horizontal length, this makes for a killer normal attack that can shut down grounded and short hop approaches. So Hwa Jai can cover that space really well with st.D and also with his other horizontal attacks like st.A, st.B, and st.C; but what then of the other two? Notice that he lacks an upward, vertical grounded normal like a standard cr.C so this sets up a potential weakness for him (unless he has a special move or great air-to-air option to help him cover those higher spaces) that’s important to recognize.
Also be aware of other miscellaneous attack properties when assessing a character. A few st.D kicks (and Hwa Jai’s st.CD) have lower body invulnerability which can give a character an option to beat low attacks without having to commit to a hop or rely on whiff punishing or frametrapping as often to beat out low pokes. These hopkicks can sometimes anti-air hops, so they can potentially reverse the standard RPS attack flow by controlling two fronts effectively. Cancelability is another key for judging how good a normal attack is. Many st.C attacks function as good hop checks or as nice pokes, but certain characters such as Hwa Jai and Ryo can actually cancel theirs into specials which can further increase their usage in creating blockstrings and frametraps. Knowing the order that a character can chain light attacks also gives insight to their strengths. Shen can chain cr.B into st.B but since he can only HD cancel cr.B/st.B, it doesn’t often convert into much damage despite its deceptional horizontal reach; Hwa Jai can’t cancel his cr.B, but he can chain into his st.B and then cancel it into his df.D slide which can be converted into a knockdown. Finally, while some attacks are capable of dominating a certain space, hitbox position can make certain attacks whiff against crouching opponents which can really hamper how safe a move is in footsies. Hwa Jai’s Standing Light Punch is one of the rarer standing jabs that hits every crouching character which decreases the risk of tossing out a fast hop check and even if the opponent was crouching he’s able to gain a frame advantage on block. Be sure to recognize which attacks will whiff on crouchers and keep that gap in mind whenever deciding to use one of these attacks, especially heftier ones like King’s st.C.
KOF places a heavy emphasis on a character’s jumping attacks due to the inclusion of hops which allows players to control a wide variety of angles when in the air. As with grounded spacing, I broke down the main aerial regions in the SRK wiki. Look at every jumping attack and see which of the four catagories each falls into. Most characters have a good vertical or vertical-horizontal jumping attack that serves as their main tool for close-ranged hop pressure as well as at least one good horizontal air-to-air. Hwa Jai’s Jumping Heavy Kick is his main air-to-ground tool since it has a nice vertical hitbox and it has a long horizontal reach. Unlike certain other vertical-horizontal attacks, Hwa Jai’s hitbox reaches down deep so the move can cross up, meaning it lacks a dead zone where it can whiff at point blank (it’s a horizontal and vertical attack, with more emphasis on the vertical depth). Iori’s Jumping Heavy Kick is comparable to Hwa Jai’s j.D, but notice that it wont cross up and should the opponent crouch it up close it can whiff, which means Iori needs to recognize when to use his sheer vertical j.C. In this regard, Hwa Jai can be a little lazier with his spacing since his j.D encompasses so much that j.C and j.B aren’t as relevant (except in instances where j.D would overextend Hwa Jai’s vulnerable hitbox, making him more susceptible to being DP’d), just like how Benimaru can get by using his j.D most of the time. Other characters might be lacking a certain jumping angle which factors in to being a character weakness, just as how Kyo lacks a strong horizontal-vertical jumping attack since his j.D can be crouched under in this game. This creates issues when attempting to approach the opponent from the air from a far range, so Kyo has to more rely on spacing to be in range of j.CD or j.2C to make the opponent respect his jumping attacks.
More horizontally-focused attacks are better suited as air-to-airs, though most are capable of hitting standing opponents (and sometimes crouching opponents, when delayed) as well. Timing a good horizontal attack can shut down oncoming hops and jumps and also hit opponents that may be running, walking, attacking, or blocking high in anticipation of a traditional air-to-ground. Previously I mentioned how Hwa Jai lacks a grounded normal for controlling the vertical space above him, but by meeting the opponent with his buff Jumping Blowback Attack he’s able to take care of that gap from a backwards, neutral, or forward hop. These longer-ranged jumping attacks are great pokes from hops, though by hitting early or spacing an attack to just tip the opponent, it’s usually not possible to convert a hit into any further damage, though the player still earns a decent frame advantage for a setup afterward.
As with Hwa Jai, a character’s repertoire of spacial control is greatly increased when you factor in jumping attacks from hops and jumps. As an example, Vice’s grounded, vertical anti-airs aren’t very good so she best controls that space by meeting the opponent in the air with j.B or j.CD (and then landing her anywhere juggle after air-to-airing). If you pay attention, you’ll notice that this scenario revolves around Vice having enough time or be in a good position to get into the air, meaning her anti-air options are much more restricted if she’s rushed down. Compounding the matter is the fact that she lacks a good reversal, so she struggles in anti-airing certain approaches on the ground.
The most important thing to take away here is to recognize a character’s types of grounded and air normals, as this can possibly expose a character dynamic or reveal how a character may need to rely on covering specific angles from the air instead of the ground. Be sure to learn which attacks can cross up and keep note of which ones can be canceled into air specials, and certainly be sure to know which ones are prone to whiffing on crouchers. There’s a few other nuances such as startup speed and length of active frames, but it’s mainly that light attacks generally start up faster and have more active frames than the heavier moves. All of this info can be found on the character pages on the wiki.
Command normals vary greatly in terms of standalone utility, as some function as decent overheads or anti-airs while some are so slow that they’re too risky to use in footsies. Nearly every command normal becomes cancelable when chained into, so they function nearly universally in hitconfirms, combos, and blockstrings. Certain command attacks have poor recovery on block so it’s not advisable to leave them uncanceled (some are completely neutral on block, though having one blocked forfeits the player’s advantage by resetting both players to a neutral state). For characters such as Joe whose f.B is unsafe on block, this poses an issue since if he cancels into his projectile he can potentially be punished by a Guard Cancel Roll. The best answer in Joe’s case is to avoid committing to f.B often and instead relying on other normals for blockstrings. Hwa Jai can suffer a similar dilemma with his df.B slide in that it’s unsafe on block from up close, so unless it’s spaced at max range he’ll have to cancel into a questionable special to minimize damage. If a character’s command normal has poor recovery then you’ll have to use it sparingly or commit to a 2-in-1 which may be susceptible to Guard Cancel Roll punishes, or better yet save it for hitconfirms or the occasional frametrap or setup.
Specials and Desperation Moves
The biggest concern with specials, their EX versions, and DMs is their utility. Learn which specials are safe on block and if there’s any spacing requirements, such as Hwa Jai’s qcb+K which can be made safe against command grabs on block despite it normally being punishable from point blank. Keep in mind that even safe blockstring ending specials may be vulnerable to Guard Rolls, and some normally safe moves can be punished with a backwards Guard Roll in the corner. Reversal attacks are a great plus, especially ones that are moderately fast and fully invulnerable, preferrably costing no meter. I talked about Joe and Hwa Jai’s possible weakness in controlling the deep vertical space and showed that they can manage to cover their heads with preventive air-to-airs with j.CD, but doing so requires a good bit of space and time. Unlike Joe, Hwa has a fast vertical DP which completely nullifies the huge weakness that Joe suffers in anti-airing vertical approaches. Many DPs and generally fast (EX) specials and DMs are good tools for punishing slightly negative moves that are spaced to be outside of Close Normal range. Command grabs can work nicely as nearly instant punishes as well as providing a character with additional means to break down an opponent’s defense as per KOF’s grappler okizeme. Keep an eye out for Anywhere Juggle attacks, as these connect against opponents that are in a hit reset state: they allow a character to tack on additional damage from something as low-risk as a standing jab anti-air or from a clean air-to-air (for instance, K’ can just about always follow an anti-air st.A with an instant air minute spikes to tack on extra damage while pushing the opponent across the screen).
There’s a handful of great special moves serve as buff pokes against grounded and hopping opponents–such as EX Kyo’s qcf+A or Maxima’s mighty M4 Vapor Cannon–which are important to utilize in the neutral game for establishing spacing, but like with all things the opponent can go for a counter so it’s definitely necessary to be ready at a moment’s notice to switch up to a more appropriate normal, anti-air, or to get back into an idea spacing instead of relying solely on these moves. Projectiles are always strong tools to have access to because of their range and disjointed hitboxes, and in KOF (and XIII in particular) many light projectiles have short recovery periods which with enough space allows a player to run behind and follow up their projectile like Guile can in Street Fighter. Due to the damage being skewed more towards combos or multiple hits rather, it’s more crucial to try to follow up projectiles primarily by trailing them to get in and start a direct offense or to set up a trap to punish jumps or rolls, while now more occasionally using a fireball to play runaway tactics. Projectiles are fine blockstring tools (though Guard Rolls can punish them) and can be used to bait hops, jumps, EX moves, and run the attrition game.
EX moves typically either have better startup and invulnerability, or dish out better damage while more likely leaving room for a juggle on hit. EX reversals and a select few DMs tend to be really nice for reactionary anti-airing or for punishing an opponent’s projectile or slower attacks. The key here is reacting in time while also recognizing the effective range of an invuln move, since most DMs and EX moves don’t tend to travel too much further than half-screen while being invincible. And despite EX specials and DMs being fast, the majority of them can be safejumped and then punished since most (good) reversals are unsafe on block. NEO MAX DMs are generally fast and invulnerable so they can dish out punishment on reaction, but they’re hefty investments (100% Drive, and either 2 or 3 meter depending on whether or not you’re in HD mode) and more suited for closing out a match or salvaging a dropped HD activation.
It’s no secret that XIII is more combo-centric than previous KOF games, but I’ll keep it simple by listing basic requirements that you should master for any character that you’re attempting to learn:
- Learn to hitconfirm from a standard Close Heavy Attack > Command Normal chain and end with a safe special or cancel into a special that causes a knockdown.
- Learn to hitconfirm from a Crouching Light Kick chain series. These vary by character, but a default pattern is cr.B > cr.A> command normal > special. Likewise, work on stopping before committing to an unsafe special so that you can mix up your blockstring with a safe special or by rehopping or frametrapping with another normal attack.
- Learn how to combo off of raw specials if applicable. After anti-airing with a fireball, it’s possible to hit the opponent before they land. Some specials can anti-air and then allow further hits afterward (just about every rekka can anti-air and combo the following hits). Hwa Jai can link a Close Heavy Punch off of his qcb+D after hitting a grounded opponent.
- Find a way to spend about 1-2 meter and one Drive Cancel to beef up the damage output from a solid hitconfirm. For Hwa Jai, this means drive canceling his usual BnB ender dp+D into j.qcb+B and then linking qcf qcf+K for a simple 1 bar 1 drive 45% combo.
- Learn to hitconfirm a counter hit j.CD into a followup. Counterhit blowback attacks cause a free juggle state so there’s no reason to not take the extra damage when the situation presents itself, so at minimum you can rehop and do another j.CD or tack on a fast horizontal DM if your character has one.
- Learn to hitconfirm into HD mode from both a Heavy and Light attack chain.
- Learn at least one HD combo, preferably a 2 meter combo into NEO MAX. It may be beneficial to learn a midscreen and corner combo for optimal damage, though if just starting out you can spend 3 meter for an easy pattern of Hitconfim > HD activation > Close Attack > Command Normal > Special > Super > NEO MAX which should deal around 80%. This will severely up your damage output and give you more of a fighting chance.
- Keep an eye out on the health bar so that you can judge how much damage you need to finish off the opponent.
Blockstrings and Frametraps
In a previous LogicFighter article, I discussed the basics of close range pressure that provides an in-depth look into using movement to create offensive blockstrings and frametraps, covering more than what I’ll discuss here. You can look for more very subtle setups and tactics to apply by looking in to Maj’s Footsie Handbook and slightly altering the rules to account for KOF’s system.
When looking at a new character, I pay close attention to any notable frametraps or exceptionally safe special moves that can be used with little risk of retaliation. There are several tight frametraps that can combo on hit or create an airtight trap, such as Hwa Jai’s cr.B, cr.C combo/blockstring. These frametraps into heavy attacks can be difficult to counter (except for blockstrings into sweeps, which can be hopped) and it offers a way to inflict heavier blockstun which can then be canceled to create tighter traps than what you’d get from canceling a standard light attack from a chain series. As mentioned before, certainst.A attacks hit crouchers and leave the attacker at a nice advantage (or at least certainly better than the recovery a st.B provides) for baiting a counterpoke or for frametrapping into a followup attack which creates plenty of potential room for reading the opponent’s intentions.
Hwa Jai can’t really continually blockstring into his specials since they leave him slightly negative and also place him right in front of the opponent so eventually he’ll either be forced to accept that he’s at a disadvantage and block or to commit to something reckless like DPing, so as someone lacking a reliable special he’s more about spacing with normals than basing his footsies around a special move like K’ with his Ein Trigger. Instead, Hwa’s better off doing more standard hop and light attack pressure on the offensive while utilizing cross ups, tick throws into his command grab, and solid frametraps, or by playing more defensively with st.D, st.A, st.CD, j.CD, and dp+B to anti-air and either capitalize from a knockdown or hit reset, or eventually set up for an offensive approach such as baiting a counterpoke st.C from the opponent and hopping/jumping over it.
So not only should you be looking to play into usual character strengths, you should be willing to switch up your strategies to counter the opponent’s playstyle, such as when being defensive with Hwa Jai.
An easy starting point for learning setups is figuring out what options are available from each knockdown a character has available. If a character’s normal throw causes a hard knockdown, then chances are that they can either follow it with a safejump, cross up, empty hop, or even ambiguous roll on top of the usual grounded meaty or simply moving to a strong spacial location. Likewise, figure out which moves net the most ideal knockdowns and always have an idea of something to do after every knockdown or hitreset, even if it’s nothing fancier than being able to run forward and then block safely. Even certain NEO MAX DMs like Kim and Shen’s leave the player with enough frame advantage for a meaty safejump afterward, so don’t rule out any possibility until you’ve tested it yourself. Obviously, you shouldn’t always autopilot into the same cross up or always go for a throw from a quickrise, but having the experience of what you can do from every single situation allows you to build up a automatic memory that ensures you go into something smart and don’t accidentally forfeit an advantage unintentionally.
Another type of setup that most characters have access to is setting up for a cross up against a standing or crouching opponent by either hopping or hyper hopping forward at a certain range. Each character’s hop arc and cross up attacks play a role in determining the effectiveness of these cross ups, but a nearly universal way to set up the spacing for these cross ups is by feeling out the exact distance by measuring distances with a blockstring. For instance, Hwa Jai can chain three light attacks and hitconfirm from the series, and should it be blocked he’s in range to hyper hop forward with j.D to cross up the opponent. Some of these setups may only work against a standing or only a crouching opponent, so it’s necessary for some like Iori to attack with lows to encourage the opponent to crouch block long enough for him to hyper hop over the opponent’s lowered hitbox. These more active cross ups can be difficult to set up, but because they occur fast they can be devastating when executed successfully and so learning ways to land them are important.
There’s also the topic of shenanigans which I’m not too fond of, but they’re certainly important to be aware of at the very least so that you’re familiar with countering them on defense. These can get out of hand whenever a player drops a HD combo since some characters can fish for a command grab or DP and then combo into NEOMAX before the HD meter runs dry, or sometimes a player might just fish for an opportunity to land a raw NEOMAX to avoid wasting their HD meter. These more desperate tricks are best dealt with by recognizing that the opponent is desperate and then treading carefully. As for landing one yourself, try being subtle when sneaking something like an overhead into a HD combo and be sure that you’re aware of the risk and reward of the situation since guessing wrong can have difficult consequences.
As always, any of the specific properties and setups I mentioned can most likely be found on each character’s page on the SRK Guide, so you don’t have to pioneer everything about your characters alone.